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The Story of William Lee and His Knitting Machine

Summary:
The story of William Lee and his knitting machine pops up now and again. For example, the 2019 World Development Report from the World Bank has a mention near the start of Chapter 1: "In 1589, Queen Elizabeth I of England was alarmed when clergyman William Lee applied for a royal patent for a knitting machine: `Consider thou what the invention would do to my poor subjects,' she pointed out. `It would assuredly bring them to ruin by depriving them of employment.'”As someone who is inherently dubious about direct quotations from conversations held in 1589, I went to the footnote, which sent me to Richard Alexander McKinley, ed. 1958. The City of Leicester. Vol. 4 of A History of the County of Leicester.  But I was unable to find the quotation in the online version of this volume. The

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The story of William Lee and his knitting machine pops up now and again. For example, the 2019 World Development Report from the World Bank has a mention near the start of Chapter 1: "In 1589, Queen Elizabeth I of England was alarmed when clergyman William Lee applied for a royal patent for a knitting machine: `Consider thou what the invention would do to my poor subjects,' she pointed out. `It would assuredly bring them to ruin by depriving them of employment.'”As someone who is inherently dubious about direct quotations from conversations held in 1589, I went to the footnote, which sent me to Richard Alexander McKinley, ed. 1958. The City of Leicester. Vol. 4 of A History of the County of Leicester.  But I was unable to find the quotation in the online version of this volume.

The William Lee story is also told as the start of Chapter 7 of the 2012 book Why Nations Fail, by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson. But the citation there is to a website for Calverton Village, where Lee grew up back in the 16th century. The webpage includes sentences like, "Those of you who live in the 20th century are aware of the bare facts of my life."  As someone who is inherently suspicious of first-person internet essays written by people who lived in the 16th century, I continued to hunt for something closer to an original source.

I won't tell you the full story of my journeys through libraries and archives, but instead will just jump to the destination.  The underlying source seems to be in an 1831 book, History of the Framework Knitters, written by Gravenor Henson. The book was then republished in a 1970 edition. It's available through the magic of Google Books: the relevant story about William Lee's experience runs from pp. 38-52. 

Henson was an important British trade union leader in the early 19th century. As Stanley D. Chapman notes in his "Introduction" about Henson's purpose in writing the book: "His main theme was that hosiery, lace and all other industries should be regulated by the government so as to maintain a decent living standard for the workers and fair conditions of trade. British industries must be protected from direct foreign competition and, more particularly, from industrial espionage, migration of skilled workmen to other countries, and export of machinery." 

Henson is writing in 1831, and thus has seen the opening decades of the Industrial Revolution. But in his judgement, William Lee's invention of a machine for knitting stockings more than two centuries earlier was "the greatest triumph of mechanical genius then, or or many ages known." At a time when technology in the textile industry meant spinning wheels and hand looms, Lee invented a machine that could knit stockings. For an detailed description of its workings, a useful starting point is "William Lee and His Knitting Machine," by R. L. Hills,  in the Journal of The Textile Institute
(1989, 80:2, pp. 169-184). 

Those who want the entire passage from Henson's history can go to Google Books. Here, I'll focus how Henson tells five elements of the story: 

  • The origin of the Lee's invention in a disappointed romance
  • The source of the story
  • The encounter with Queen Victoria
  • The excessive monopolies of that time
  • Taking the technology to France
Origins of the Invention in a Disappointed Romance
"The invention of the knitting machine, (since better known by the name of the stocking frame and the workmen as framework-knitters,)  owed its origin, as is universally agreed, to a singular circumstance the disappointed love of the inventor the Rev. William Lee, curate of Calverton, in the county of Nottingham. This gentleman, it is said, paid his addresses to a young woman in his neighbourhood, to whom, from some cause, his attentions were not agreeable; or, as with more probability it has been conjectured, she affected to treat him with negligence, to ascertain her power over his affections. Whenever he paid his visits, she always took care to be busily employed in knitting, and would pay no attention to his addresses; this conduct she pursued to such a harsh extent, and for so long a period, that the lover became disgusted, and he vowed to devote his future leisure, instead of dancing attendance on a capricious woman, who treated his attention with cold neglect, in devising an invention that should effectually supersede her favorite employment of knitting, So sedulous was Mr Lee in his new occupation, that he neglected every thing to accomplish this new object of his attentions; even his sacerdotal duties were neglected; In vain did his sweetheart endeavour to reclaim him; she found,too late, that she had carried her humour too far, all interests, all avocations, all affections were absorbed in his new pursuit, from which he imagined he should realize an immense fortune. His curacy was despised, and at length abandoned, as beneath the notice of a person who had formed in his imagination such gigantic prospects." 
As Henson tells the story, Lee came up with the idea for the framework knitter after hours upon hours of watching the fingers of his romantic interest.  As Henson describes in extensive, delightful, and (to me) impenetrable detail, it involved a complex array of  hooks, needles, grooves, combs, springs, trucks, lead sinkers, the slur cock, jacks, and other parts attached to a wooden board. 

The Source of the Story!
"The greater part of this information was obtained from Mr, Hardy, Twister's-alley, Bunhill-row, London, who was apprenticed in London, in 1711, and died, aged 90, in 1790--from Mr Woods, Godalming--and from an ancient stocking maker who died in Collin's Hospital, Nottingham, aged 92, and who was apprenticed in Nottingham in the reign of Queen Anne, and all of them gave a similar account. This is in some measure confirmed by the arms of the London Company of Framework-knitters which consist of a stocking frame without the woodwork, with a clergyman on one hand and a woman on the other as supporters."
Going to See the Queen
Having now discovered the method of knitting by machinery, his next effort was directed to obtain the golden harvest which had flattered his imagination. He removed his invention to London for the purpose presenting it to the Queen, in the fond hope of receiving her congratulations, and those of her whole court. ...  Such a discovery as the art of making so complicated a fabric as knitting by machinery was considered almost miraculous; Elizabeth was excited by curiosity (in company with Lord Hunsdon and his son) to inspect the frame incognito. Lee now imagined himself certain of a handsome remuneration, but his hopes proved delusive. It is said that nothing could exceed her disappointment, when she perceived that Mr. Lee was not making silk but woollen stockings, and that his machine was not capable, without great improvement, of making the articles in which she took so much pride of being the first wearer. ...
Though supported by the powerful intercession of Lord Hunsdon, and his son Sir Wm Cary, equally a favorite with Elizabeth, she refused to make either a grant of money or secure him a monopoly or patent. Her answer is said to have been to the following purport: -- My Lord, I have too much love to my poor people, who obtain their bread by the employment of knitting, to give my money to forward an invention which will tend to their ruin, by depriving them of employment, and thus make them beggars. Had Mr. Lee made a machine that would have made silk stockings, I should, I think, have been somewhat justified in granting him a patent for that monopoly, which would have affected only a small number of my subjects. but to enjoy the exclusive privilege of making stockings for the whole of my subjects is too important to grant to any individual."
The Excessive Monopolies of that Time

Apparently Lee ran into a different problem: Queen Elizabeth has been granting lots of monopolies to court favorites, and there was a widespread sense that it had gotten out of hand. Thus, the granting of unwarranted monopolies became a reason to deny Lee a monopoly as well. Henson writes:

The time which Mr. Lee had chosen to make an application to the government, though to his sanguine mind very propitious for remuneration. was in reality the reverse; the treasury of Elizabeth was extremely low, owing to the enormous expenses which she had incurred in preparations to meet the Spanish armada in the preceding year. Already had the Parliament begun to express their decided umbrage at the grant of the privileges of patents for monopolies; which, as they were then conducted, were justly considered national evils, and the most odious means of rewarding court favorites, by an excessively tyrannical mode of private taxation. Nearly all the nobles enjoyed a patent for the most useful and general articles of consumption, such as iron, lead, saltpetre, salt, oil, glasses, &c. &c., to the amount of more than one hundred articles, which were sold, imported, or exported by virtue of letters patent. These patent rights, were sold to persons who farmed the profits, and thus demanded what prices they thought prudent for their commodities. When the general list was read over in the House of Commons in 1601, a member, indignant at the the extortions, exclaimed, " Is bread amongst the number?" "Bread?" cried the house, with astonishment, "Yes I assure you," he sarcastically replied, "if we go on at this rate, we shall have a monopoly of bread before next Parliament." 
Going to France

William Lee persevered, encouraged by the thought that if he could build a knitting machine for silk stockings, he might yet receive a patent or other financial support from Queen Elizabeth. Henson reports that by 1596-97, after 7-8 years more work, he succeeded. Henson refers to this invention as "the most wonderful act of a single genius ever displayed, even in these mechanical ages." Henson reports that although there were some rumors that Lee received a patent, the "London and Godalming men, unitedly say that he had no patent." He was then enticed to relocate to France, but his political support in France disintegrated after the assassination of Henry the Great, and Lee died soon thereafter. Henson writes:

His [Lee's] apprentices and workmen were principally composed of his relatives, who thought it so high a honor to belong to the new craft, that they wore their working-needles, having ornamental silver shafts, suspended from a silver chain, at their breasts; and this mark of distinction was preserved so late as the reign of Queen Anne. After the death of Elizabeth, Mr. Lee, who was now past the meridian of life, became in some measure melancholic, for he found that her successor James, who retained Elizabeth's minister Cecil, followed the same course in refusing him remuneration. ...
About this time, the Marquis de Rosni, better known as the Duke of Sully, first minister and favorite of Henry IV. one of the ablest men Europe has produced in modern times, arrived in London, as ambassador, for the purpose of negotiating an alliance between France, England, Holland, Venice, and the northern powers, against Philip III., Emperor of Germany, King of Spain, Portugal, Naples, and Sicily. The policy of this truly great man, who had revived to an extent before unknown the manufactures of France, speedily induced him to take advantage of the neglect of Cecil. He applied to Mr. Lee, and made him very splendid offers, provided he would remove himself and his machinery to France. ...

Though he declined acceding to Sully's wishes, he gave him reason to hope that, provided his own government still neglected him, he might yet be induced to emigrate. - - Some years after this, having lost his great patron and apprentice Lord Hunsdon, he was,induced to close with the proposals of the Duke of Sully, and to remove with the whole of his men, excepting one who (returned to Nottingham), to Rouen, in Normandy. Having established his frames, and commenced his manufactory, he went to Paris, where he was introduced by the Duke to his Sovereign, Henry the Great, who gave him a gracious reception. This benevolent Monarch, who was then, and is now, the darling of the French nation, particularly of the working classes, was meditating the humbling of the ascendancy of the house of Austria, and was preparing for the opening of a campaign the most brilliant that had taken place in that age, when the desperate assassin, Francis Ravaillac, as he passed through the streets of Paris, during a momentary stop of his carriage, got upon its wheels, and at two blows deprived Henry of life, and poor William Lee of all his brilliant expectations. He was then in Paris, expecting, after the hurry of the departure of Henry, that his minister, Sully, would have leisure to arrange with him the establishing of his manufacture upon an extended scale. So dreadful a misfortune acted as a thunder bolt upon the unfortunate ingenious man, and when, on waiting upon Sully, he found that that great minister had resigned the whole of his appointments into the hands of Mary de Medicis, the Queen Regent, and that he was preparing in disgust to retire to his estate, leaving the government in the hands of Italians, his fortitude forsook him, and he gave way to the melancholy which had attacked him in London; he thought himself the most unfortunate of men; alone, unprotected, in a foreign country, after twenty-two years’ struggles;" he sickened at the thought, and sent for his brother James, from Rouen, but before he arrived, the inventor of the stocking frame died of a broken heart, in the midst of strangers. This happened in the year 1610.

The technology of Lee's knitting machine was at this point known, and gradually adapted and adopted. By the 1620s it has become established as a method of production.

Who knows what Queen Elizabeth actually said, more than 250 years before Henson published his history in 1831? But quoting her concerns about the workers, together with concern about her own silk stockings, is probably as well-justified as many other long-ago historical examples. At least if you (or I) tell the story in the future, there is a bit more context about monopoly powers of that time, and how technology that cannot flourish in one country may head to another.

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